MovieMonday: Moana


This is Disney’s latest animated princess story for the children’s market.

It is named for the daughter of a Polynesian tribal leader on an island that is succumbing to environment breakdown. Against her father’s admonitions, she sails away in search of a solution to her people’s plight.

Moana is drafted into a second story about Maui, a 1,000-year-old demigod in many South Pacific island lores, who has lost his magic fish-hook. Moana and Maui work together, a pair of mismatched buddies, to solve both their problems.

Like other updated princesses, Moana is her own agent. She is challenged again and again along her way, climbing tall cliffs, evading serial perils and also learning to sail and navigate by reading the stars. As in most traditional “young boy/girl goes out into the world’ stories, the point is that she triumphs against obstacles.

At least I think that is the point. Frankly, I couldn’t make sense of the plot, which encompasses magic, imaginary creatures and various gods.

About the only cultural references I could spot were 1) Maui’s lost fish hook, a source of power drawn from Polynesian lore, and 2) Tomatoa, a hermit crab that resembles the dragon Grendel in the Beowulf tale; like Grendel, Tomatoa hoards treasure, including the fish hook.

It goes without saying that Moana, who appears to be about 10, is brave and noble and true.

Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, is a 1,000-year-old character whose bodily tattoos change shape at each plot twist to express his emotions. He is by turns a good demigod who helps humans and a flawed personality who stops well short of being an actual villain.

In the Maui characterization and other ways, Disney is lightening up some of the childlike sincerity of earlier children’s films. When Moana denies Maui’s characterization of her as “princess,” he comes back with the observation that yes, she is a princess because she wears a skirt and has an animal sidekick, in this case a scraggly cat. A little inside joke, that.

The cartoon imagery is beautiful, and much has been made of the musical numbers contributed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit “Hamilton.”

It’s a good movie for children, who enjoy watching child heroes/heroines in action. But, again, the plot is thin and in some ways incoherent. I can’t it to a fellow grownup.

Odds are that it will gross more than $1 billion.

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